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Dec 7, 2:48 PM EST

Egypt activist says she was arrested in NGO funding case


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CAIRO (AP) -- A prominent Egyptian human rights activist and lawyer was arrested on Wednesday in connection with an ongoing investigation of the country's top rights campaigners for illegally receiving foreign funds. Her arrest has had a chilling effect on Egyptian rights activists who fear they will be next.

As she was being away led by police, Azza Soliman told The Associated Press by phone that security forces arrived to her house and presented her with an arrest warrant. Soliman, the chairman of the Centre for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance, was banned from traveling abroad last month and told her name was blacklisted; days later she learned that her assets had been frozen. After three hours of interrogation, she was released on bail, according to lawyer Mahmoud Belal.

"Azza Soliman's arrest is the latest chilling example of the Egyptian authorities' systematic persecution of independent human rights defenders," said Najia Bounaim at Amnesty International. "There is a real risk that her arrest could signal an accelerating crackdown with many other human rights defenders subject to the same inquiry facing the risk of imminent arrest."

An asset freeze was also issued by a court in September against several of the country's most prominent human rights leaders.

The decision was taken pending an ongoing investigation that they received millions of dollars in foreign funds to harm the country's national interest. If convicted, they could be sentenced to life imprisonment. The case has been revived recently after it was initially opened in 2011, shortly after the downfall of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in a mass uprising. Security authorities raided 17 NGO offices, and 43 people, including several Americans, were referred to court. After the U.S. citizens managed to flee the country, a court in 2013 sentenced the NGO workers to up to five years in prison, mostly in absentia. A number of rights groups were shut down.

According to Belal, the prosecutor questioned Soliman over allegations she received foreign funds to harm the national interests and evaded taxes.

The move comes as human rights advocates complain of being increasingly targeted by authorities with legal procedures, as part of a larger crackdown on dissent. Since the 2013 military ouster of elected Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, authorities have jailed thousands of people, mainly Islamists but also leading secular and liberal activists.

Last month, the Egyptian parliament approved a new law regulating non-governmental organizations that gives security agencies extensive power over the financing and activities of NGOs and rights groups.

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